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South Korea has the second highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Asia, second only to China. While the country’s program of mass testing – up to 20,000 people each day are tested – has helped halt community transmission of the coronavirus, unions are determined to ensure the country can address any new clusters whilst respecting workers' rights and public interest.

Healthcare workers who are also members of the Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union (KHMU) have mobilized to respond to the crisis, including by volunteering to serve at COVID-19 hot spots in the country. Ahead of the April general elections, the union is urging political parties to commit to nationalizing private hospitals and increasing staffing levels in the public health system. At the same time they are calling on the government to provide support to the private hospitals at this time in order to increase national capacity to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), one of the two national centres in South Korea representing workers in all sectors, offers an overview of the situation in South Korea at this time, including its impact on the most engaged and vulnerable workers: healthcare workers, firefighters, civil servants, education support workers, food and postal delivery workers, aviation workers, subcontracted workers and the self-employed.

The KCTU has laid out its demands for enhanced measures, including legislative ones, to secure the physical, mental, and economic protection of workers in times of crises such as the one South Korea – we – are currently experiencing.

The following article earlier appeared here. This updated version was shared with PSI by its affiliate Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU), who represents workers in the public and social services, including healthcare and transport. Highlights and small edits have been made to the article for clarity and emphasis.

Economic and Political Impact in South Korea

In South Korea, COVID-19 is predicted to have a more severe impact on the economy than SARS or MERS, which brought growth down by 0.2~0.3%. COVID-19 could easily put the economy in the worst situation it has been in since 2008. The travel (including aviation), distribution and service sectors are being hit the hardest, with individually-owned and small-scale businesses and workers in these sectors the most vulnerable. Domestic consumption is dropping and major auto manufacturers Hyundai and Kia are recording the lowest revenues in 10 years with a huge impact on manufacturing and the entire economy.

The spread of the virus is being heavily politicised under racial terms, with conservatives blaming the government for not blocking entry from China early on. The shortage of masks and the government's supply system are also politicised issues. Meanwhile the ruling Democratic party has failed to show sufficient sympathy for the public’s concerns, and it is likely that the continued increase of confirmed cases of infection, deaths and small business failures will work against them in the upcoming general elections (April 15). Populist municipal politicians within the Democratic Party have proposed funding for an ‘emergency basic income’ (universal cash support), leading to public debate, although the government says it does not plan to implement such a measure.

South Korea’s mostly privately owned and operated healthcare system has proved inadequate to respond to the spread of the virus. National health insurance expenditures are increasing due to the prevention effort. The vulnerability of the elderly and disabled to the virus, including mass infections at care facilities, is casting a light on the problems of the mostly private care services. This situation is leading to increasing calls for strengthening of public healthcare and increasing the public healthcare workforce.

Guidelines announced by the Ministry of Employment and Labour include paid time off for those confirmed to have been infected, in close contact with an infected person, or quarantined, and work from home or paid time off for those who show symptoms, are likely to have been in contact with an infected person, or have childcare needs. The government is providing some support; however, there are many instances where these guidelines are not being followed or can’t be applied. Regularly reported problems include forced use of vacation time or unpaid leave, layoffs, pay reductions and failure to follow safety guidelines. These problems are far worse for small and individually-owned businesses.

Highly impacted and vulnerable workers

Healthcare workers

Nurses, nursing assistants, and patient care workers face exposure to infection, particularly in Daegu and other areas where the outbreak has been severe. Hospital workers face lack of sufficient information on confirmed cases, lack of sufficient safety equipment, as well as unequal supply. Workers are facing discrimination in terms of who should go on self-quarantine and receive personal protective equipment. Non-professional patient care workers are being told to buy their own masks due to a lack of supply.

Home care and support workers for the disabled face a loss of work and income due to a failure in matching support workers with users due to fear of infection. No allowances are provided if workers are not matched with users. Many workers are not provided with face masks. Workers who support disabled people who are in self-quarantine must work 24 hours a day for 14 days. In a marketized system, workers are supplied through private agencies, without sufficient government funding to guarantee standards of pay and working conditions.

Disease prevention civil servants:

Civil servants are experiencing overwork due to lack of sufficient workforce, leading to several deaths of civil servants. Those working in COVID-19 screening centres work up to 20 hours a day in anti-contamination suits, reducing food and water intake due to difficulty in dealing with basic bodily needs. Those in charge of quarantine management and whose contact information is made public are facing verbal and physical violence from some people. Some 600 firefighters have been quarantined after coming into contact with infected persons while transporting them.

Aviation workers:

All aviation workers are facing forced unpaid time off or use of vacation time due to extreme route reductions. This is despite the fact that these measures violate Ministry of Employment and Labour guidelines. All Asiana workers are facing unpaid leave in the month of March. Self-quarantined workers are also not being paid. Korean Airlines cabin crew are also facing forced leave or use of vacation time and loss of income.

Education support workers:

According to the Ministry of Employment and Labour’s interpretation, schools which have been closed until at least March 23rd are shut down for ‘unavoidable’ reasons, implying that some 100,000 education support workers are not entitled to business suspension allowances. These workers, who are also not paid during school vacations, have had no income since January. Only teachers who can engage in distance learning activities from home are being paid. At the same time, emergency day care hours at schools are being extended, and day care instructors are made to work without support from the teaching, cafeteria, and other staff and without sufficient protective equipment.

Delivery workers:

Work has increased for these workers due a dramatic increase in online food orders from people fearing to go outside or in self-quarantine. One driver for an e-commerce company died from overwork during a midnight shift on March 12. Postal and delivery workers come into contact with many people in uncontrolled settings, yet do not have access to sufficient or up-to-standard masks. Delivery workers who find buildings they have been entering everyday closed due to confirmed cases of infection are not being tested or given time off in some cases. Workers are seeking clearer guidelines for deliveries to quarantined individuals or affected areas, including restrictions on collecting signatures or suspension of door-to-door delivery in the most risky cases. Food delivery workers who work via intermediaries and platforms are demanding safety measures including guaranteed online rather than face-to-face payments, use of masks and hand sanitiser and basic income support in the case of self-quarantine.

Subcontracted workers and small business workers

According to the newly revised Occupational Safety and Health Act, lead companies are responsible for prevention measures, yet subcontracted workers are often not issued with sufficient protective supplies such as masks and hand sanitiser. Subcontracted cleaning workers in rail and metro are experiences difficulties in getting protective equipment despite working in public spaces. With no oversight from the Ministry of Employment and Labour, workers are forced to take unpaid leave in cases where workplaces are closed due to disinfection or quarantine. These conditions are particularly difficult for workers in hard hit sectors such as airports and airlines, where forced unpaid time off has become routine. Workers in companies employing four or fewer workers are also particularly vulnerable as they are exempt from laws on paid time off and dismissal.

Dependent self-employed workers

Workers who are dependent self-employed (workers who perform work or provide services to other persons within the legal framework of a civil or commercial contract, but who in fact are dependent on or integrated into the firm for which they perform the work) or in disguised employer relationships (where an employer engages workers on a ‘self-employed’ basis primarily to avoid the responsibilities imposed on employers by national labour law) in transport, delivery, service and platform work do not have recognised employers and therefore are not issued with masks or hand sanitizers at all. While the government is distributing some masks to these workers, many are left out. Government support is being provided in the form of loans, limited to workers who are covered by industrial accident and illness insurance, and excluding many categories of self-employed workers. These workers are in dire need of direct support for loss of income, as well as extension of unemployment benefits and freedom of association rights.

KCTU demands enhanced physical, mental and economic protection for vulnerable workers in crisis times.

DEMAND 1: Change direction of government’s response, focus on securing funding and executing relief

  • Increase funding for direct support and provide cash support in the form of ‘emergency disaster basic livelihood support.’

DEMAND 2: Support vulnerable workers as part of containment effort

  • Immediately provide masks, hand sanitizers to healthcare, delivery, and mobility workers, including subcontracted and dependent self-employed workers. Provide protective measures to workers, including home care and migrant workers.

  • Increase oversight of lead companies’ prevention measures covering subcontracted, agency, and daily workers.

DEMAND 3: Improve oversight of workplace containment and prevention measures

  • Increase oversight to ensure labour-management consultation and OSH committees consult on response measures.

  • Provide oversight to prevent forced use of individual vacation time in the case of workplace closure or quarantine.

  • Provide paid care leave and extend excluded categories, including those on civil servant and teachers’ pension plans.

DEMAND 4: Put in place urgent measures to minimise harm to workers

  • Provide workplace closure allowances for education support workers, daily construction workers, dependent self-employed workers.

  • Support to maintain employment at workplaces with four or fewer employees.

  • Oversight of and sanctions for employers forcing workers to take unpaid leave or give up pay.

  • Staffing and safety support measures for civil servants, public institution and healthcare workers facing overwork.

  • Prevention of misuse of exemptions on work time limitations (52 hour week) .

DEMAND 5: Strengthen response system for infectious diseases and public healthcare

  • Address mask shortage and ensure supply to healthcare facilities and blood banks.

  • Increase efforts to secure hospital beds to treat COVID-19 patients.

  • Support for hospital losses and staff increases.

  • Establish national and regional public hospitals specialising in infectious diseases.

  • Increase public healthcare facilities and professional workforce.

  • Transfer from facility-centred to community-centred approach to mental health.

DEMAND 6: Develop and implement legislation for Fundamental Change: ‘5 Covid-19 Labour Acts’

  • Enact law guaranteeing paid infectious disease leave and care leave.

  • Expand the application of unemployment insurance law.

  • Enact law on ‘emergency disaster basic livelihood support’ for vulnerable groups.

  • Revise the Trade Union and Labour Relations Adjustment Act (Article 2) to guarantee freedom of association rights of dependent self-employed workers.

  • Amend the Labour Standards Act to apply to workplaces with four employees or less.

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